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Medical Cannabis for Mental Health

by Joan Newsome
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Cannabis has been used to treat health conditions for thousands of years. In recent decades medical cannabis has moved into the mainstream with growing acceptance, access, and availability. As a result, we’re seeing an increasing number of people turning to plant-based medicine as an alternative and viable treatment for a range of health issues, including mental health-related conditions like anxiety and PTSD.

What is Medical Cannabis?

Medicinal cannabis is any product derived from the cannabis plant used to treat or relieve a range of health conditions, often when conventional medication has proved unsuccessful. Medicinal cannabis products generally include one or both of two key components responsible for most of the medical benefits of cannabis — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the main psychoactive compound; CBD causes no psychoactive effects.

Unlike street cannabis, medical cannabis is regulated with quality, purity, and component protocols carefully adhered to by licensed cannabis companies like Cannatrek, making medical cannabis’ effects more predictable and consistent.

The Endocannabinoid System

Medical cannabis helps to relieve certain medical conditions by working with our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is responsible for maintaining our body’s internal balance – also known as homeostasis. This includes mood, sleep, memory, appetite, reproduction, and inflammation.

Endocannabinoids occur naturally in our bodies and are needed for our body’s functioning. Phytocannabinoids occur in the cannabis plant and are recognised as endocannabinoids by our body. Together with receptors and enzymes, endocannabinoids regulate our body’s internal balance, impacting on sleep, pain, inflammation, mood and more.

Case Studies and Research

Like all medicines, large-scale and long-term clinical trials and scientific evidence are needed to show the efficacy of medical cannabis. Although research is in its early stages, a number of trials and case studies suggest that medical cannabis can play a role as a viable treatment for a range of mental health conditions.

Treating Anxiety with Medical Cannabis

Anxiety can be debilitating and is often treated with a combination of therapy and medication. Symptoms can include increased heart rate, restlessness, hot flushes, feeling on edge, shortness of breath, muscle tension, shaking or trembling, and uncontrollable thoughts. Anxiety disorders include generalised anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), extreme phobia and panic disorder.

Common treatments include therapy, lifestyle changes and medication like antidepressants and/or sleep medication. Because conventional anxiety medication often has side effects or proves unsuccessful, medical cannabis is increasingly considered as an additional and effective treatment option for anxiety, with early-stage research showing promising results, some noted below.

A Canadian study of patients with generalised anxiety disorder found that most patients (92%) felt medical cannabis improved their symptoms, with half replacing prescribed medication with medical cannabis.

For OCD patients, because the endocannabinoid system (ECS) may be involved in the pathophysiology of OCD, a limited number of studies suggest that medical cannabis may be effective in treating OCD alongside therapy. Specifically for patients with Tourrete syndrome (TS), a study showed positive improvements of tics and comorbid obsessive-compulsive behaviour (OCB) with the use of different kinds of cannabis-based medicines.

Medical Cannabis and treatment of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is often a chronic mental health condition where conventional medicine has limited effect. PTSD may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic, terrifying or dangerous event. Symptoms of PTSD include intense flashbacks, nightmares, extreme anxiety, feelings of disconnectedness, impaired concentration and avoidance of certain people and places.

While these feelings are severe and extreme, PTSD can be treated with the correct combination of therapy, lifestyle changes, and medication. This often includes medical cannabis, with early evidence suggesting medical cannabis can help provide relief, with some studies’ encouraging results shared below.

A small group of Canadian military personnel with PTSD indicated that nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid, shows promise as a treatment for patients with nightmares, historically non-responsive to traditional therapies.

A separate Canadian study on anxiety and depression found that most respondents (92%) experienced improved symptoms with medical cannabis, with nearly half reporting that they replaced prescribed medication with medical cannabis.

In an Israeli study, where 5mg of delta 9-THC (a cannabis compound) was an add-on treatment for chronic PTSD patients, respondents reported improved sleep, reduced frequency of nightmares and reduced hyperarousal PTSD symptoms.

In a Netherlands focus group for PTSD veterans, respondents reported improved quality of sleep, reduced anger and a reduction in taking other medication. This group also reported minimal side effects with medical cannabis compared to conventional medication.

The Road Ahead

Even with a substantial amount of preliminary research available, further wide-scale and long-term research are needed in the field of medical cannabis and its promising mental health benefits. But as a start, medical cannabis is already proving to offer relief as a viable therapeutic option for many people who live with a range of mental health conditions.

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